Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule

by Davis McCombs
     
 

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The 1999 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition is Davis McCombs's Ultima Thule, which was acclaimed as "a book of exploration, of searching regard.... a grave, attentive holding of a light" by the contest judge, the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin. The poems are set above and below the Cave Country of south central Kentucky, where McCombs lives and

Overview

The 1999 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition is Davis McCombs's Ultima Thule, which was acclaimed as "a book of exploration, of searching regard.... a grave, attentive holding of a light" by the contest judge, the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin. The poems are set above and below the Cave Country of south central Kentucky, where McCombs lives and which is home to thousands of caves. The book is framed by two sonnet sequences, the first about a slave guide and explorer at Mammoth Cave in the mid-1800s and the second about McCombs's experiences as a guide and park ranger there in the 1990s. Other poems deal with Mammoth Cave's four- thousand-year human history and the thrills of crawling into tight, rarely visited passageways to see what lies beyond. Often the poems search for oblique angles into personal experience, and the caves and the landscape they create form a personal geology.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A worthy addition to the recent American literature of place, this year's Yale Younger Poets collection keeps to Mammoth Cave, Ky., where McCombs lives and has worked as a guide. The opening sonnet sequence is written in the persona of Steven Bishop, a slave who was a guide to the caves in the mid-1800s. Whether or not McCombs's period-ventriloquism is accurate, his just slightly stilted diction transforms ordinary observations into pleasing verse. "He told of tides/ and how the ocean is affixed as with a chain/ to moonlight," McCombs writes in "Star Chamber," while "Echo River" makes a more musical point: "By slapping/ the water with the flat of my paddle,/ there comes a sound like the ringing of bells." Building on these understated pleasures, McCombs sneaks broad sexual comedy past the reader in "Visitations": "It is the women/ on the tours that give me pause, delicate/ ghost-white, how, that night, I'm told,/ they wake to find themselves in unfamiliar/ beds, and lost, bewildered, call my name." The poems that follow miss the peculiarly off diction of the opening sequence--and even in those poems, McCombs goes back maybe too often to his key words: "silence," "light" and "night." But the compellingly eccentric word choices and odd history and geography come together often enough to make this the finest Yale Poets selection in years. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
It's always interesting to see what will be chosen next for the renowned "Yale Series of Younger Poets," and last year's choice proved particularly strong: it went on to become a National Book Critics Circle finalist. The title, which hints metaphorically at the mythic cold north, is also the name of an inaccessible passage in Kentucky's Monmouth Caves, where McCombs worked as a ranger. In a quiet, steady voice polished as the cave's limestone walls, McCombs delivers a history (both geologic and human) of the cave. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Harlan
Named for the most remote cavern in Mammoth Cave National Park, Ultima Thule, chosen by W. S. Merwin as the winner of this year's Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, lucidly mines Kentucky's cave country as its subject matter...Throughout, Mammoth's fantastical underworld is calmly revealed... through McCombs's translucent, musical language.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300083170
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
03/11/2000
Series:
Yale Series of Younger Poets
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
72
Sales rank:
1,275,179
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

Salts Cave


We slip the constant fifty-four
with ninety-eight point six, ten of us,
in the wobbling balance of lantern light.
We rattle and clink over breakdown
into rough-edged canyon, the cave
still holding a river's shape as it narrows
and deepens. And still the signs of life:
cane torches, half a gourd bowl,
and human feces — cold two thousand years.
They came here mining salts, the limestone walls
scripted with gypsum, epsomite, mirabilite.
We choose our steps, careful to leave no sign
of passing. Near Mummy Valley a flat slab
propped upright and markings — turtle?
dancing figure? map of the cave?
Twenty centuries and only one moment
when burnt torch end scraped limestone.
Mark, record, leave behind,
trace of what held heat, what is mine.

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